Lewis and Clark and their real life shaggy dog story

Time Before Now, April 1806In addition to dispatching Lewis and Clark to the Pacific, President Thomas Jefferson organized the William Dunbar and George Hunter expedition south to the Ouachita River and the Thomas Freeman and Peter Custis expedition on the Red River.   Ludwig van Beethoven’s “Fidalio” had finally opened in Vienna.  The work so frustrated the composer he swore never to compose another opera and he never did.   American-born physicist, Benjamin Thompson Rumford, invented the coffee percolator. (Right)  A Tory during the Revolution, he immigrated to London after the war and is credited with designing a kitchen range and the double boiler, as well.

April 11, 1806

On this day, Captain Meriwether Lewis’s adventurous dog, Seaman, was stolen by  several members of the Watlala tribe.

Newfoundlands, prized for the strength and good disposition

Learning of the theft, Lewis dispatched three men to retrieve the dog with orders to fire on the Watlala if they refused to return him.  Confronted, the kidnappers put up brief resistance but ran off, leaving the dog behind when threatened.

A small branch of the Colombia River Chinookan, the Watlala had already irritated Lewis and Clark during an encounter in early November.   “Supposed of Paying us a friendly visit,” wrote William Clark, “they had Scarlet & blue blankets Salors jackets, overalls, Shirts and Hats independant of their Usial dress; the most of them had either war axes Spears or Bows Sprung with quivers of arrows. . . Those fellows we found assumeing and disagreeable, however we Smoked with them and treated them with every attention & friendship.”

Charles Russell’s 1905 painting, meeting Columbia River people

The expedition discovered a number of items missing following the visit, including a “pipe tomahawk” and a coat.  This time, stealing  Seaman was apparently a bridge too far.  Lewis wrote that he had ordered the centinel to keep them [Watlalas] out of camp,  threatening to shoot them on sight for attempts to pilfer property. 

The chief of the neighboring Chlahclellar tribe attributed the misdeeds to several bad actors among the Watlala.  Mortified, the chief made every attempt to make amends, Lewis said,  and “seemed friendly disposed towards us.”

Interior of Chinooken plank house

Seaman was the only four-legged member of the Corps to make the entire trip.  His kidnapping by the Watlala was just one of his adventures on the way to the Pacific and back.

Lewis had paid $20, about $500 today, for the young Newfoundland pup back in Pittsburgh.  And while he is referred to as “Captain Lewis’s dog” in the journals, he apparently became community property in the affections of the men.  

A prodigious hunter of small game, Lewis detailed the dog’s ability to catch squirrels in his early travels on the his way to St. Louis.  “I made my dog take as many [squirrels] each day as I had occasion for,” he wrote.  Catching them on shore he would then drown the unfortunate animals in the river.  

Seaman’s water pursuit of a large beaver in Montana nearly cost him his life, however.  According to Clark, “Capt. Lewis’s dog was badly bitten by a wounded beaver and was near bleeding to death.”   The captains performed some type of undocumented surgery on the severed artery.   Seaman apparently made a full recovery but it ended his marine hunting days. 

Serving as the camp’s night watch, Seaman was credited with chasing off a lone buffalo that wandered in among the sleeping men.   The presence of marauding grizzlies also caused him great concern.  “My dog seems to be in a constant state of alarm with these bear and keeps barking all night,” Lewis wrote.

Like the men, Seaman suffered from the clouds of mosquitoes and cactus spines underfoot,  In the last journal entry to mention the dog,  July 15, 1806, Lewis noted “[T]he musquetoes continue to infest us in such manner that we can scarcely exist. for my own part I am confined by them to my bier at least 3/4 of the time. My dog even howls with the torture he experiences from them.”

Seaman also seemed to play an ambassadorial role with the native people along the way.  Probably weighing north of 140 pounds and like most Newfoundlands, with an even temperament, Lewis commented while among the Shoshone, “… the sagacity of my dog” was greatly admired.

Prized for their size and stamina, Newfoundlands were originally bred as working dogs used extensively by Canadian fishermen and heralded for their water rescue abilities.  Blessed with a dense insulating coat and webbed paws, they are exceedingly strong swimmers and can survive in icy temperatures.

Little is known of Seaman following the expedition but recent research indicated he returned to St. Louis with Lewis and a number of sources believed he died  there in 1809 at about six years of age.  A sentimental account of his passing tells that he mourned Lewis’s death at Natchez Trace, Tennessee, a probable suicide, that same year. 

Historian James J. Holmberg unearthed a book of epitaphs compiled by The Rev. Timothy Alden, (left)  founder of Allegheny College.  “The fidelity and attachment of this animal were remarkable,” the book states .“After the melancholy exit of gov. Lewis, his dog would not depart for a moment from his lifeless remains; and when they were deposited in the earth no gentle means could draw him from the spot of interment. He refused to take every kind of food, which was offered him, and actually pined away and died with grief upon his master’s grave.”  There appears to be no documentation or mention that Seaman accompanied the Captain on his final journey.

In addition to the antidotal account regarding Seaman, Aldin also was the first to publish his family’s fabled story of the love triangle among his Pilgrim ancestors, John Alden, Priscilla Mullins and John Standish. 

Monuments to the well-traveled pup stretch from the Custom House Cairo, Illinois, to Columbia View Park in Saint Helens, Oregon, and nearly a dozen diverse places in between.  (Left, monument in St. Charles, Missouri)

And now in the 21st Century, Seaman has become an important history ambassador to young readers.  A variety of books chronicle his adventures including  “Seaman: The Dog Who Explored the West With Lewis and Clark” by Gail Langer Karwoski, “Tall Tails: Cross-Country with Lewis and Clark” by Dona Smith and The Captain’s Dog” by zoologist, Roland Smith.

The Cathlapotle Plankhouse, Ridgefield National Wildlife Refuge near Ridgefield, Washington, is a faithful replica of the Chinookan people of the Columbia River.  The full-scale reproduction is based on archeologists findings from the site and required two years to complete. The village was recorded in the Lewis and Clark journals twice, once in November 1805 and again in March 1806.  Contact with Europeans proved to be disastrous, however.  Diseases like smallpox and mysterious “ague fever” swept through the population two decades later and by 1830 survivors abandoned the area.  A family homestead replaced the Chinookan in 1840 and it became part of the National wildlife refuge in 1865. 

The Plankhouse is now an important community center and educational resource for the Chinookan people but visitors are welcome on weekends during the spring and summer. Informational tours are provided and a schedule is available by calling (360) 887-4106.

© Text Only – 2021 – Headin’ West LLC  – All photos – public domain or fair use.

*Head On West strives for historic accuracy and uses a number of sources considered reliable.  When research differs on significant facts, the various points of view will be cited.